the underground man in montreal: rawi hage’s cockroach

According to the jacket copy, “The nameless narrator of Rawi Hage’s COCKROACH is an Arab immigrant who has failed at everything, including suicide, so he settles into a restless refuge among the human detritus of the Montreal underworld. He uses his court-ordered therapy sessions to spew surprisingly witty and descriptive bile about his life among the thieves and miscreants of the city, seducing his psychiatrist with his transgressive monologues and the intensity of his belief that he is part insect. He eventually finds work as a busboy, a position which allows him to maintain his social invisibility and listen in on the illicit schemes of the clientele. When he discovers a dark connection between one of the customers and an Iranian waitress whom he is infatuated with, he resolves to use his worthless life as currency to purchase a small measure of justice for her.”

 

I like to pass by fancy stores and restaurants and watch the people behind thick glass, taking themselves seriously, driving forks into their mouths between short conversations and head nods. I also like to watch the young waitresses in their short black dresses and white aprons. Although I no longer stand and stare. The last time I did that it was summer and I was leaning on aparked car, watching a couple eat slowly, neither looking at the other. A man from inside, in a black suit, came out and asked me to leave. When I told him that it is a free country, a public space, he told me to leave now, and to get away from the sports car I was resting against. I moved away from the car but refused to leave. Not even two minutes later, a police car came and two female officers got out, walked towards me, and asked for my papers. When I objected and asked them why, they said it was unlawful to stare at people inside commercial places. I said, Well, I am staring at my own reflection in the glass. The couple in the restaurant seemed entertained by all of this. While one of the officers held my papers and went back to the car to check out my past, I watched the couple watching me, as if finally something exciting was happening in their lives.They watched as if from behind a screen, as if it were live news. Now I was part of their TV dinner, I was spinning in a microwave, stripped of my plastic cover, eaten, and defecated the next morning just as the filtered coffee was brewing in the kitchen and the radio was prophesying the weather, telling them what to wear, what to buy, what to say, whom to watch, and whom to like and hate. The couple enjoyed watching me, as if I were some reality show about police chasing people with food-envy syndrome. 

I thought, I will show this happy couple what I am capable of. One of the officers came back from her car, gave me back my papers, and said, You’d better go now if you do not want trouble. So I started to walk. And when I passed the man outside his restaurant, I spat at the ground  beneath him and cursed his Italian suit. Then I crossed the street, entered a magazine store, flipped through a few pages, and came out again. I watched that same couple from behind the glass of the entrance to an office building. Now, all of the sudden, they had something to say to each other, so they had started to converse. And I watched the owner come to their table and talk to them as well.

Excitement had been injected into their mundane lives. I bet they even got an apologetic complimentary drink on the house at my expense. Bourgeois filth! I thought. I want my share!

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nihilism unbound: john zerzan on the spirit of our age


The theories of the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan derive in part from the negative dialectics of Theodor Adorno, as well as concepts from other Frankfurt School theorists, including their analyses of alienation and society, art and culture, and so on. Zerzan posits for humanity a pre-historical golden age, which lasted until the advent of our original sin — the emergence of symbolic thought or “culture.” The little humanity we have left will soon be totally eclipsed by the dominance of robotic and cyborg technologies and virtual reality simulations: “Progress has meant the looming specter of the complete dehumanization of the individual and the catastrophe of ecological collapse.” (Running On Emptiness, p. 79).

The Age Of Nihilism

 

Technological mediation and separation continue on their emptying ascendancy, embodying so well capital’s impoverishing penetration of every level of life on this planet. But there are signs that an era of unchecked cynicism, engendered by this rampant advance of techno-capital, is finally being challenged. The challengers, moreover, are quickly deepening their understanding of how fundamental the challenge must be if it is to succeed.

 

With this in mind, the following comments on nihilism may well be less apropos than they would have been even a year or two ago. For the focus of this essay is passive nihilism, rather than the probing, critical variety, which is the active nihilism now emerging as a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, the question of how and why an enfeebling ethos of meaninglessnessand indifference came to predominate may still be of some interest.

 

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev described the nihilist as one "who looks at everything critically … who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered." But during the same period, Dostoevsky portrayed modern, passive nihilism in Notes from Underground. Its protagonist was merely disgruntled, and lacked the passion and conviction necessary to hold convention to the flame of critique.

 

During the following century, it appears, the sense that nothing matters became widespread. One current among others, quite obviously, but a growing one. Nothing counts more than anything else, so nothing really counts. Nietzsche had said that nihilism "stands at the door" of modern civilization, and that door opened wider as the important sources of meaning and value steadily revealed themselves as inconsequential and irrelevant, unequal to the rigors of modern life.

 

Heidegger found in nihilism "the fundamental movement of the history of the West," and what was the bane of the nineteenth century became, by the 1990s, a banality. Nihilism, in the current postmodern clime, is simply the matter-of-fact state of mind of our period—so widespread today is the attitude that little or nothing is compelling, authentic, or makes a difference. Distinctions of value or meaning and the value or meaning of distinctions are less and less persuasive. There is a cultural exhaustion in the movement through decadence into nihilism. According to John Gray, nihilism constitutes modernity’s "only truly universal inheritance to humankind."

 

That inheritance has accelerated, it seems, since the failure of the movement of the 1960s, when belief in continuous Progress had reached its peak. As utopian oases dried up, a desert of inertia and pointlessness spread. By the ’80s, with nothing to look for and nowhere to go, youth were tagged as slackers, Generation X, etc. In the summer of 1990, the New York Times called kids the generation "that couldn’t care less."

 

With young people looking ahead to a lifetime of strain and empty consumerism, it should surprise no one that teens’ suicide rate has tripled in the past 30 years. Or that network television now offers what amount to "snuff" programs for the jaded and bored, as the population in general experiences its life-world as more and more of a vacuum in every way. A melancholy escapism flowers in this Dead Zone, this Nowhere.

 

Development is a given; this cancer of a system would soon collapse without its steady onslaught. It continues its onrush into the hypermodern vista of high-tech unreality. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a consequence of the erosion of the Christian world view. But this is a superficial judgment, in many ways confusing effect with cause.

 

A deeper causative factor is the march of technology, in the direction of the complete industrialization of society. From the present apex of cultural homogenization and standardized life, this is easier to see than it was for Nietzsche more than a century ago. The hollowing out of the substance and texture of daily existence is being completed, a process intimately related to the near impossibility of experiencing the world without technological mediation. The overall destruction of experience speaks to the deprivation at the heart of both technology and nihilism,

 

With this absence of unmediated personal experience at the heart of technological progress, skyrocketing levels of stress and depression cannot be surprising. Technology mediates between individuals and nature, ultimately abolishing both. With the triumph of technology, autonomy regresses and negates itself. The promises have all been lies. One is the promise of connection, so mercilessly (though inadvertently) mocked in a recent TV commercial: "I’ve got gigabytes. I’ve got megabytes. I’m voice-mailed. I’m e-mailed. I surf the Net. I’m on the Web. I am Cyber-Man. So how come I feel so out of touch?"

 

A set-up whose essence is efficiency is already fundamentally nihilist. Technical rules are rapidly supplanting ethical norms by making them irrelevant. What is more efficient or less efficient holds sway, not some moral consideration, even as the systemic goals of techno-capital are shaped by the evolution of its technology. Production, based on mastery and control, becomes more visibly a process of humanity devouring itself.

 

When powerlessness prevails, a generalized sense of paranoia is not an illogical symptom. Similarly, a current and telling form of cynicism is technological fatalism ("There’s nothing we can do about it"), further exposing the tendency of cynicism to shade into conformity. As Horkheimer and Adorno observed, "technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself."

 

Understanding and responsibility succumb to an ever-increasing fragmentation, a division of labor that is always unequal and alienating. The only wholeness resides in the fundamental system that turns all else into parts. As the moral self recedes, it becomes harder to grasp the relationship of these parts to one another and to see what they are part of. Domination and nihilism’s crisis of meaning are inseparably entwined.

 

For Heidegger, technology constitutes the final phase of nihilism. Under its sign all talk of freedom, happiness, emancipation becomes a mockery. In fact, technology itself becomes the ideological basis of society, having destroyed the possibility of other, overt forms of justification. Engagement or belief are hardly necessary for technology’s effective rule. In this way the nagging problem of declining participation in the system can be mitigated, or deferred.

 

Technology is the embodiment of the totalizing system of capital, and media is an indispensable, ever more defining bridge between technology and the commodity system. If the high-tech information explosion cancels all meaning in a meaningless noise, the mass-entertainment industrial complex pumps out increasingly desperate diversions to a society of relentless consumerism.

 

"Infotainment" and McJournalism are the latest pop culture products of nihilism. Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about reality anyway? And yet media, like technology, is always promising solutions to problems it has created, or worsened. One example among many is the significant rise in teen smoking in the 1990s despite an enormous media campaign aimed at reducing teen smoking. Strangely enough, beefing up the media does not combat alienated behaviors.

 

In the United States, and soon to spread elsewhere as not less than a function of development, we witness the recent transition to an amusement society of commodified spectacles and simulations. The eclipse of nonmediated reality feeds still greater urges to escape an emptied everyday life. Massified culture works in favor of distraction, conformity, and culturally enforced stupidity. The consequent lack of authenticity produces a mass turn-off, not unrelated to the decline of literacy.

 

The collapse of the distinction between reality and simulation in the world of representation can be seen as the ultimate failure of the symbolic. Art, music, and other forms of symbolic culture are losing their power to pacify and console us. Simulation technologies are just the most recent steps away from lived life, toward represented life. Their failure to satisfy means that the system must turn, increasingly, to containment and control.

 

To protect the desolate society an alternative to that society is safely set up, by means of image technologies. As the social dimensions of human life disappear along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the next stage of human existence. We are moving steadily toward the goal of complete illusion—virtual life in a virtual reality.

 

Under the Juggernaut, the subject is not supposed to have any sense of social causality, structure, coherence, or motive. Virtual Reality’s merely surface experience is exactly mirrored by postmodernism’s fascination with surfaces. As the culture that can just barely still be called one, postmodernism celebrates its own depthlessness, and is thus nihilism’s essential accomplice. It comes to pervade society when too many have given up hope that they can plumb the depth and roots of the whole. Postmodern perspectives are grounded in the incapacity to specify why change might be desirable or how it might come about.

 

Postmodernism is fundamentally the collapse and refusal of the chance to understand the totality. This indeed is the postmodern boast, mirroring the fragmentation of life instead of challenging it. Its "politics" is that of pragmatism, the tired liberalism that accommodates to the debased norm.

 

Deconstruction, for example, treats every moral statement as an endlessly manipulable fragment that possesses neither meaning nor intrinsic worth. Rem Koolhaus formulates the overall PM subjugation as follows: "According to Derrida we cannot be Whole, according to Baudrillard we cannot be real, according to Virilio we cannot be There."

 

Postmodernism, it might be argued, expresses fewer illusions, but the basic ones remain unchallenged. Its exhausted, ironic cynicism is prostrate before the nihilist ascendancy. What could be more passive than critique-less postmodernism double talk—an ideology of acquiescence.

 

Falsely laying claim to the protection of the particular as against the universal, postmodernism presents no defense whatsoever against the most universalizing force of all, technology. In the guise of particularity it incarnates nothing less than the realization of technology’s universalizing Midas touch.

 

Postmodernism emphasizes plurality, accessibility, absence of boundaries, endless possibility. Just as consumerist society does. And just as speciously. Where culturally a glut of meaningless information and incoherent fragments hold sway, the glut of ersatz commodities provides a perfect economic parallel. The liberty that remains to us is essentially the freedom to choose among brands A, B, and C, and the KFC in Tienanmen Square expresses domination as surely as the suppression of human rights protesters there in 1989.

 

"Systematic consumer segmentation and micro-marketing" is the dominant model of individualism today in the nihilist ethos of listless yet restless buyers. In fact, in an overwhelmingly commodified existence, consumption becomes the number one form of entertainment. Little wonder that academic journals now seriously discuss not only the McDonaldization of society but also its Disneyization, while life is largely defined in terms of consumer styles. The cognitive and moral focus of life becomes that of consumer behavior—including, it should be noted, voting and recycling.

 

Nihilism has effectively leached out the substance and texture from the life-world in the painful progression by which capital and technology have reduced and debased everything in their way. There is no exit from the closed system except by the elimination of that system.

 

Civilization begins by myth and ends in radical doubt, to paraphrase E.M. Cioran. This may remind us that cultural radicalism, which has become such a convention, feeds the dominant system rather than undermining it. Culture, born of alienation, needs alienation to go on. We must challenge the idea of symbolic culture as well as the reality of high-tech barbarism.

 

Nihilism is not a one-way street with no return, rather a route that has revealed the ensemble of domination for what it is. There are now very visible signs of the possibility of breaking its hold, redeeming its long, dark night.

 

2000

 

—from John Zerzan, Running On Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (Feral House), 2002, pp. 109 – 114.

john gray on the “prozac politics” of the west

Philosopher John Gray: ‘We’re not facing our problems. We’ve got Prozac politics’


The philosopher John Gray is riding high as one of the few thinkers to have predicted the current economic chaos. Here, he tells Deborah Orr how we got into this mess – and how we might get out of it


Interview by Deborah Orr


Saturday, 11 April 2009

It’s universally recognised that some people benefit hugely from recessions. But no one really expects those beneficiaries to be philosophers. John Gray, thus far, has had a fabulous recession, not least because he was one of the few people who forcefully predicted it, notably in his 1998 book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. This week, with perfect serendipity, Penguin has published Gray’s Anatomy, a collection of his political writings over the past 30 years. Gathered together, Gray’s essays, articles and reviews offer a very handy historical and philosophical guide to how we all got here, in a hefty, readable slab of glorious prescience.

Gray, who is now 60, withdrew from his sparkling academic career not much more than a year ago, in order to write full-time, and he still gets a bit of a kick from his new-found freedom. He grandly insisted on booking a room in "the Wylie building" for our interview. This, I think, hints a little at pleasure in being represented by Andrew "the Jackal" Wylie, the pre-eminent transatlantic agent of his generation, and a lot at habituation to having well-appointed institutional rooms at his disposal. Gray moved to Bath, with his wife Mieko, a dealer in Japanese antiquities, around the time when he surrendered his most recent post, as Professor of European Thought at the LSE. So the plush Bloomsbury office now serves as a London base.

One might forgive Gray, as he sits in Georgian splendour sporting a rust-coloured corduroy suit, for being a little bit bumptious, and slightly prone to self-regarding cries of: "I told you so." But such egotistical grandstanding would be a betrayal of everything Gray has ever believed in, if he could be accused of ever having "believed in" anything. Gray eschews all "isms", except realism, and he admits, with some shame and an awareness of the dreadful irony of life, that "a surviving element of utopianism in me" presently leads him to hope against hope that realism – and the establishment of a reasonable modus vivendi – might possibly be the coming thing.

Long mistaken for a pessimist, Gray instead has a talent for calling an ideological spade an ideological spade. His intellectual speciality, or his "recurrent habit of enquiry", as he puts it himself, "is to try to identify features of the present moment, which are taken to be unshakeable by conventional opinion and established interpretation, but are not, in order to try to find out the interstices or weaknesses or fragilities". It’s a technique that has served him very well.

However, Gray always does his best to respect the politicians who wield the ideological spades, preferring those who are "willing to get their hands dirty" and involving himself in the think-tanks that nourish them. This guiding principle dictated that he was an early supporter of first "the Thatcher project" and then "the New Labour project", even though many people would argue that one or both of these contributed vastly to our current predicament.

Again, it’s all about realism. It would be wrong to say that Gray has "faith" in politics. But he does think that politics are a much better way of sorting things out than the messier alternatives – war and revolution. He also reserves a degree of disdain for protest politics, not because it never succeeds in getting its point across – Gray fully accepted the evidence of global warming early on, for example – but because he is suspicious of movements that people join in order to find psychological satisfaction and "give meaning to their lives". It is the "meaning-conferring function of political projects" that he identifies as the aspect of them that allows people to get carried away with dangerous fervour.

In the introduction to Gray’s Anatomy, the author declares with some irritation that he has lost count of the number of people who have asked him why he stopped "believing in Thatcherism". He has the good grace to chortle amiably when I facetiously insist on making that my first question to him. Anyway, it’s still a good question, as he concedes himself, because its answer encapsulates pretty much every aspect of Gray’s formative thinking.

Certainly Gray recognised in Thatcher, from the moment she became leader of the opposition in 1975, a politician who was willing to get her hands dirty. But more importantly for him, she was a militant anti-communist, as was he. He dates his interest in Russia from early in his teens, when he began reading Dostoevsky, and credits the hardening of his anti-Soviet, anti-ideological stance to "the enormous influence" of Norman Cohn’s 1957 book The Pursuit of the Millennium.

"Cohn argued that all of the great political movements of the 20th century, including Nazism, were at least partly pathological versions of western religious traditions, in particular apocalypticism. If you talk to most centre-left people, these happy meliorists, these so-called inch-by-inch meliorists, they will say: ‘That may be true of the 20th century and of the extremes of politics but not of us.’ But I always believed that utopian or millenarian or, let’s just say, irrational politics, could break out in democraciesas well." His 2007 book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, explains how the war in Iraq was one such nightmarish manifestation.

Crucially, Gray considers that one of the signals of incipient pathology is the advent of hubris. Hubris, he points out, entered the Thatcher project when communism collapsed. It was then that it came widely to be dubbed as "Thatcherism" and then that Gray judged it to have disconnected from reality. He recalls seeing Thatcher on television saying, "We are a grandmother," and thinking: "That’s it, then…"

"One of my recurring tests of political reality and of political fantasy is when hubris penetrates not just leaders but an entire organisation," he explains. "Then it’s over. That happened with Thatcher, and it happened with Bush. The key phrase with him was the famous: ‘Are you part of the reality community?’ "

Significantly, Gray’s anti-communism differed in one important aspect from Thatcher’s – and almost everybody else’s. "Far from being pessimistic," says Gray, "I was considered wildly optimistic at that time because I thought communism – a tremendously repressive system of government – would simply collapse. Nearly everyone, including the Foreign Office and Sovietologists, always portrayed it as completely unshakeable. I didn’t think that was true. It didn’t have much internal legitimacy – ever."

So, while Gray fully endorsed Thatcher’s "militant position in the Cold War", he wasn’t utterly surprised when the Berlin Wall suddenly went, like a tower block that had been demolished in a controlled explosion. Except that this was an explosion that few saw the need to control.

"I was horrified by the uncomprehending and stupid western post-collapse policy towards Russia … What were western policy-makers thinking in the Nineties, when Russia went through a demographic crisis? People were dying in numbers unique in modern peace-time. A third of the population went underwater, pensions and life savings went out of the window. What were they thinking would result from that? That was an absolute catastrophe. George Bush Senior, not long after the Wall came down, said: ‘This is a great moment for freedom, but no occasion for triumph. It will be very, very difficult.’ But nobody wanted to hear that.

"It went against the prevailing mood of triumphalism, when Thatcherism turned into a global project. It went against the opportunities for financial gain that presented themselves in the former Soviet Union. It went against the hubris of the time. What was needed was a very light touch, a non-ideological approach, very pragmatic, very flexible, very skilful. Instead what we got was: ‘This is what you’ve got to do. Adopt this wonderful model that we’ve got.’ "

The swaggering hubris of the time gained widespread intellectual legitimacy with the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s essay The End of History, in 1989. Gray was back then contemptuous of what he saw as yet another expression of apocalyptic thinking, and an example of "the domination of the American mind by the liberal ideology that has fostered blind spots in American perception of the real world that have been immensely disabling for policy". While Fukuyama’s theory is now dismissed as an aberration, Gray rightly maintains that its influence was pervasive and baleful.

Anyway, it is now all too obvious that neither global liberal democracy nor global free markets were unstoppable. Gray is quite certain, on the contrary, that they are over, in their present form. He predicts, during the piecemeal process of coming up with a different model, "a relatively long period of sheer survival".

"We are presently in the first phase, not of recession, depression, deflation, inflation – all these sterile debates. We’re in the first phase of the collapse of this type of globalisation, or this phase of globalisation, which will have some features in common with the Thirties but will be different in lots of ways."

Gray admires John Maynard Keynes, and admires the post-war settlement. Why shouldn’t he? From a working-class background in South Shields, he was nudged into grammar school and from there to Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied PPE because its reading list "coincided with the things I was reading anyway". He describes himself as a Butler boy, a child of the post-war settlement. But he doesn’t think that approach will work now. All it provides, he says, "is a staff to lean on" while we work out how to "stop fighting the last battle instead of the one we are in".

"A crucial difference is that America isn’t the industrial powerhouse of the world any more, so reflating America, even if it was possible, wouldn’t get us out of the mess. The Obama administration is essentially rudderless. Gordon Brown did stop the banking system from outright collapse, but that was crisis management, and we’re now at a later stage. Mechanical Keynesianism won’t work, or at least won’t work well in a context in which capital movements and economies are open.

"A semi-open global free-market was created, especially for capital. It has its own features, its own logic, its own dynamism. I don’t think anyone fully understood how it worked or how big it was growing. So then it becomes very difficult to control, because there’s no entity that embraces this economy. Each separate state or entity presents problems without even comprehending what is happening. They all react in different ways as they resolve different issues. The elite oscillates between immediate crisis management, and just dithering, or not knowing what to do, or quarrelling about who is to blame.

"In this early phase of collapse, Brownian rationalist re-regulation at an international level is utterly remote from what is in fact happening, which includes an entrenchment of illegal parts of the economy that are rather globalised. The elements of de-globalisation are: less trade, repatriation of capital, nation state more important. If you’re going to bail out a bank there will be pressure – so far not very effective – for the benefits of that to be felt locally.

"So all these classical features of collapse are present. Which has happened before. This is a normal historical collapse. There was a major collapse in globalisation after the First World War. I’m not saying we are going to have what we had then, because there were a number of malign features then that we don’t have now. We don’t have fascism or communism we don’t have imperialism or colonialism …"

But we do have ecological peril.

"Yes. Industrialisation is still occurring. China still wants and needs 8 per cent growth a year. That requires large energy inputs and so oil prices will go back probably to $80 or more in the next few years. When that happens, will it be against a background of governments having taken various measures to ensure that they develop alternatives to oil? I doubt it. Because most environmental and ecological projects are being reined back because now the immediate imperative everywhere – in the case of China for regime survival even, or in democratic countries just as part of winning the next election – is to try to get the show back on the road. But the reason it collapsed is that it is not sustainable.

"There are no goodies and baddies in this. It’s not just the Russians, the Chinese. It’s also Canada, Denmark, Norway. All saying: ‘We want our share.’ That’s the future. If we had the realism to see that as an ongoing trend, it could be mitigated, the sharp edges could be taken off. We could expect conflicts we might be able to manage better.

"But the actual response, I think, and this is partly to do with the way democracy works and the way the mass-media works, is to avoid confronting these admittedly intractable problems, because there is actually underlying despair. It’s Prozac politics. If you say actually, possibly, we’re past the tipping point for preventing a two-degree change. That’s despair: ‘I can’t get out of bed. I’ll get drunk. I just can’t take it.’ So it’s a very fragile mental resilience we’ve got here.

"But in the Netherlands, they’re giving some land back to the sea, they’re giving some land that was farmed back to nature, they’re building on stilts, they’re creating wildlife passageways – they’re responding. Intelligently. To my mind that’s inspiring. Just take the emerging consensus of scientists and respond.

"Realism is a necessary condition of serious politics and serious policy-making. And realism isn’t popular. Because what many people are looking for in politics – including green politics at the moment, is a meaning for their lives. If you say to people: ‘We can’t move to a world in which we don’t have either nuclear or fossil fuels. That’s impossible,’ they will say, ‘That’s not impossible, not if we all want it.’ But many countries don’t want it. Russia’s not going to do it. Venezuela’s not going to do it. Iran’s not going to do it. Their wealth and power depend upon fossil fuel. ‘Well, we can do it,’ they’ll say.

"And when you push it, it comes down to a kind of symbolic expressive function whereby even if the effect of certain policies – like moving towards wind power – is to be forced back to coal, then it doesn’t matter, because the purpose of the policy is not actually to effect a real-world change but to keep the spirits up.

"The search for a narrative which confers meaning on people’s lives and shows them to be part of a larger, meaningful picture, is to my mind a legitimate and deep-seated human need." For that reason Gray scorns Richard Dawkins, and the whole idea that if people turned away from religious belief, the world would be "better".

"The search for meaning is dangerous when it spills over into politics. It’s not only dangerous when it produces the communists, the Jacobins and the Nazis, but also in the context of democratic or liberal meliorism, because it creates a preference for policies which satisfy this need for meaning rather than have an actual effect."

Gray sees the present collapse as an inevitable consequence of the human condition, and particularly the human belief that somehow industrialisation is progressive, and can become wholly benign, for everybody. "Humans don’t always adapt well to industrialisation, but pretty much all humans want the benefits of industrialisation. They want clean water, they want long lives, they want warm rooms, and, let’s be frank, they also want a high-stimulus environment. I can’t imagine what life is like in an immobile village in the medieval period. But it would be a very low-stimulus environment, in which people are stuck. There’s no room for romantic nostalgia here.

"Yet all forms of industrialism are on one hand attractive to humans and on the other intolerable to them. Partly, that’s their revolutionary character. It is in the nature of industrialisation that markets rise up and disappear because new technologies rise up and disappear. So whole industries vanish, with some of the ways of life that are associated with them. People have to move or change their skills, or find other things to do. It’s not a transition to a stable state. It’s permanent change.

"It’s not really about capitalism. Industrial civilisation itself is inherently dynamic and revolutionary. I think Marx got that right. That’s partly what human beings like about it. That’s what’s attractive. What’s unattractive is that it is very difficult to reconcile its actual operation with the human needs for security and stability. People do want security and stability. But they also want possibility and thrills. They do want happiness, but they also want excitement, which is quite different. And these are ubiquitous human conflicts."

Gray remains a fan of the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill: "Not his utilitarianism, not his belief in progress, not his Victorianism – but his eclecticism. He took things from different systems of thought. The truth about human civilisation is very unlikely to lie in some single form. Which he understood."

Yet specialisation is another change that has been ever-increasingly wrought by industrialisation. Very few people on the planet now can really claim to be intellectual generalists yet still have a grasp of "the detail". Gray suggests that there are one or two people who manage to achieve a useful overview. He is complimentary about Nassim Taleb, the writer and hedge-fund manager who also anticipated the crash. But he is, like many others, a bit cross with the "experts" of Wall Street and Canary Wharf, who didn’t read Keynes or Galbraith – or even Ayn Rand – until they got their redundancy bonuses.

"The type of economic thinking that went on up to and including Keynes – which was not that long ago – doesn’t happen any more. Political economy. Adam Smith. Lectures on jurisprudence. Theory of Morals. And so on. David Ricardo. Marx came out of that tradition.

"Economics wasn’t seen as a separate discipline concerned with mathematics and the ability to model it. It was seen as a historical discipline connected with history, connected with morality, connected with the analysis of the nature of the human mind. And that went on right up to Keynes, who was a sophisticated kind of guy, founder of the Arts Council and so on, but who also wrote a treatise on probability, read all the philosophers of his day, was an investor, liked to go to Deauville and have a flutter.

"The post-war settlement did last a long time and was a benign settlement, predominantly … But the way economics has developed … it has cut loose from history, even from the history of economics, let alone the history of economies … the loss of the past, of the sense of history is a very profound development."

It’s slightly weird talking to Gray, because I find I agree with absolutely every word he says. I’m not sure whether we are just on the same wavelength, or whether, over the years, he’s had such a profound influence on my world-view that I’m just a little John Gray thought-clone. However, since that’s one question that Gray is quite unable to answer, I fear that I cannot answer it either.

—from The Independent:  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/philosopher-john-gray-were-not-facing-our-problems-weve-got-prozac-politics-1666033.html

the final days of friedrich nietzsche: “tears in turin” by muharem bazdulj

 

TEARS IN TURIN

 

Shame.—A beautiful horse stands there, scratches the soil, wheezes, and longs for someone to ride it and loves the one who usually rides it—but, oh, what a shame! Today he is not able to soar on the horse, being tired.—That is a shame of a tired philosopher faced with his own philosophy.

 

The Dawn

 

There are cases in which we are like horses, we psychologists, and become restless: we see our own shadow wavering up and down before us. A psychologist must turn his eyes from himself to eye anything at all.

 

Twilight of the Idols

 

12.31.1888

 

Just as the sun began to draw golden hieroglyphs on the wall through the translucent fabric of the curtains, Nietzsche woke up. The bed was under a window, so Friedrich, lying on his side, was able to observe undisturbed the golden symbols’ dance on the white wall across from the window, a dance that reminded him of the flickering of Midsummer’s Eve fires. In the silence he heard only the uniform sound of his own breathing and the slow and regular beating of his heart (as always, his pulse was never more than sixty beats per minute, just as it usually was never less than that limit; his heart beat exactly once per second like some atomic clock, the temporal equivalent of one of those geometric bodies of exact dimensions made of a particular alloy that are kept in a special institute as prototypes of official measurement units; thus if one kilogram is in fact the mass of an equilateral cylinder of a radius of thirty-nine millimeters made of an alloy of 90 percent platinum and 10 percent iridium kept in the International Bureau for Measurements and Weights in Sevres, then one second is the time during which Nietzsche’s heart made one beat, and not, as it is claimed, the duration of 9192631770 periods of radiation corresponding to the transition between two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom—if this means anything at all). With his right hand he was massaging his forehead around the temples. Maybe he had a headache. Last night, as usual, he was bothered by insomnia, which almost every night was as quietly and unpretentiously persistent as the sound of a fountain. It returned eternally. That is why this morning, too, Nietzsche was lying wide awake and trying, apparently, to give his tired body a rest, a rest his brain did not want. It was as if his brain had an inkling of the rest it would not give his body. On a night table next to the bed were books stacked in straight towers, like floors of a high-rise. The letters on their spines formed some strange crossword, with the vertical letters making incomprehensible and mostly unpronounceable piles of consonants mixed with a few vowels, while the horizontal letters proffered the famous names of Dostoyevsky, Seneca, Stendhal, Kant, Thucidydes, Schiller, Heraclitus, Rousseau, Goethe, and Schopenhauer. On a desk by the wall, illuminated by the sun, were Nietzsche’s papers and writings. He had written a lot in the past year, a year whose last hours were just passing. He had never liked this holiday, this so-called New Year, the grotesque tail of Christmas, dies nefastus, a day that in fact represents the day of the circumcision of the purported Messiah, his almost grotesque first spilling of blood. But today’s day was nearly special even according to Nietzsche’s personal calendar, the calendar he had invented in The Antichrist (which was on the desk among other writings), completed exactly three months ago, on September 30, 1888, according to—as he wrote—the false calendar. That day Nietzsche declared to be Salvation Day, the first day of the first year, making this thirty-first day of December of 1888 the second day of the third month of the first year. Nietzsche frowned while the thoughts of some mystic quasi-pythagorian analogy were probably going through his head. In fact, the day dearest to Friedrich, which he would pick as a starting point for his calendar (from which he—it is completely logical—did start counting time in a way), was his birthday—October 15. That day was in some way his name day—luckily, not in a religious sense. October 15 was the birthday of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV after whom Nietzsche was named. On the desk among the manuscripts, as a silent witness, his Ecce Homo was lying. Nietzsche probably knew by heart all the sentences he had written not so long ago. Maybe he was whispering them now in his bed. As I was born on October 15, the birthday of the above-named king, I naturallyreceived the Hohenzollern name Friedrich Wilhelm. There was at all events one advantage in the choice of this day: my birthday throughout my entire childhood was a public holiday. If Nietzsche was really remembering his childhood birthdays, when he believed that his whole homeland was celebrating just his birthday, then he could not have missed an ironic detail connected to his birthday and the calendar he had established three months ago that had declared September 30 Salvation Day and the start of a new calculation of time. By establishing his own calendar he had made himself a kind of Julius Caesar (and he loved Caesar as can be witnessed by another of his works, Twilight of the Idols, lying on the desk between The Antichrist and Ecce Homo). Caesar’s calendar was adjusted approximately fifteen days backward by Pope Gregory, but if Nietzsche’s calendar could be adjusted, this could be done only by some antipope and Antigregory, and adjusted in the only possible way, fifteen days ahead, making New Year’s day fall on his birthday—the Antichrist’s birthday, instead of some Middle Eastern mess about the circumcision of a purported Messiah. Nietzsche smiled silently. In moments of silence and loneliness he always found most similar to himself the personalities he scorned the most in his writings, the personalities of the two greatest and most famous oral teachers (and that was probably their only feature completely opposite to his own, because Nietzsche was a teacher only in a written sense, but orally—while teaching at the University—he was only a lecturer; but even this difference between the oral preaching of his two greatest impossibles and his own leaning toward written prophecies was more a consequence of the times than their characters): with the dialectician and the rabbi, Socrates and Christ. He raised himself on his elbows just to reach a clock on the night table with books, to see the time. It was almost eleven. But still, Nietzsche lay down again. Forgetting, apparently, that he had awakened at daybreak, he thought it might have been noon already, making this late morning moment too early for getting up. If he had already resigned himself to wait for noon in bed, then there was no reason not to do it. Again he smiled gently, as if he remembered that Russian novel in which the hero wakes up at the beginning of the novel and spends the whole first section lying lazily in bed. But Friedrich was not accustomed to lazy lying in bed. It must have been that some strange and undefined weakness enveloped him this morning, this day actually, because he was still prone even at half an hour after noon. But realizing the time, he immediately got up. Strangely, he was not hungry. He spent the next three hours—almost till dusk—sitting in a chair. This way his afternoon was the same as his morning, apart from his back being in a vertical position. Luckily, it was not cold although it was December. Such was Turin. (The quiet and aristocratic city of Turin—so he wrote in Ecce Homo.) When dusk fell in his room, Nietzsche decided to go out. The decision to eat something was more the fruit of his giving in to habit rather than to demands from his belly, his brain searched for food more than did his stomach. After having a quick meal, Nietzsche walked through the streets of Turin for a long time. Almost paradoxically, his tiredness diminished as he walked more. A light southern wind was bringing a puff of additional warmth to the already mild air, like the feeling of a burst of blood to the head of a man with fever. Nietzsche’s forehead was beaded with sweat. But his heart was still working like a clock (and this comparison should not be considered colloquial but rather concrete and the most correct possible), and his breathing was just slightly quicker. At a street corner he stopped for a bit. He did not pause to rest (he didn’t need to), nor because he was in thought (in his youth he had read somewhere that people with lower mental capabilities are incapable of thinking and walking at the same time, the start of any barely significant thinking stops them immediately; then with pleasure he remembered a fact he had noticed long ago, although without assigning to it any positive or negative meaning, the fact that he thought better and quicker while walking), he simply tried to separate the sensations of time and space, to put himself under the control of time while being motionless in space, as if by doing this the power of time over him would be higher, as if the sum of time and space within a person is always constant, bringing him closer to time if he gives less control to space, and vice versa. Then he went to a particular spot, his own spot on the banks of Po. He had gone there for the first time when he completed The Antichrist, on the first day of the first year of his own calendar. For the last three months he had been coming here almost every time he went walking. He watched the water flowing. A river by day is not the same as by night. The sound of a river flowing in darkness is unreal and healing. He came back home fifteen minutes after ten o’clock and went straight to bed. Usually he went to bed later, trying to trick the insomnia. But this time he lay down early and, amazingly, fell asleep quickly. He did not want to be awake to hear the clock strike twelve irrevocable chimes.

 

1.1.1889

 

The first morning of the New Year was well under way when Nietzsche woke up. Amazed, he rubbed his sleepy eyes, trying to remember the last time he had slept this well, so deeply and for so long. It was almost ten o’clock. This time his body did not desire lazy lying but immediate rising. Nietzsche got up and began measuring the room with his steps, as if merely standing was not enough but rather it was necessary to emphasize his alertness and the pleasure caused by refreshing sleep. He yawned not in the nighttime but in the good-morning way, which expresses not sleepiness but ultimate escape from the gluey fingers of sleep—these two facial grimaces are identical, but identical in the same way that in ancient Egypt a  hieroglyphic symbol could represent two diametrically opposite things. This was a good beginning to January, almost like the one that a few years back gave him The Gay Science. To that January he had dedicated a poem in which he thanked it for crushing the ice of his soul with a flaming spear. Maybe this would be a similar January. Each month has its own special and direct, weather-independent influence on our bodily condition, even on the condition of our soul.— Somewhere sometime he had read this forceful diagnosis, which he accepted as correct even before it proved itself a few times in his life. Even his intimate calendar almost did not disturb the internal structure of months. With a new beginning came a new sequence of months, but some natural events, such as the beginnings of the seasons, still fell around the twenty-second of the month, just as in the false calendar. He stopped in the middle of the room almost out of breath. Walking in the room exhausted him, like a long walk in his cage exhausts a tiger. Then he opened a window and breathed good morning southern Piedmont air for a long time. The climate had always had a strong influence on his health and mood, and, consequently, on his writing. Who knows what would have happened to him had he always lived in his homeland, up there in the Teutonic cold? Good air makes a person feel fed and watered. This morning even the sky cheered up Nietzsche: clear, blue, bright, and crowded with birds. Leaving the window open, Nietzsche turned toward the interior of the room. He was looking at his desk. At the desk’s edge lay sorted manuscripts of his completed works, and the rest of the heavy wooden surface was messily covered in handwritten papers with sketches of aphorisms and conceptual writings. They were lying there in heaps, more like fallen tree leaves than like leaves of paper, like an illustration of the magnificent Wordsworth-Huxley misunderstanding, that tragic and symbolic meprise, which occurred when Huxley, for the title of a novel, took a phrase Wordsworth had used in a poem in which he invited a friend into the bosom of nature, calling on him to forget about those barren leaves of old books; Huxley, therefore, named his novel Barren Leaves, but in its translation into foreign languages the novel is just about always called Barren Tree Leaves. But the unrelenting perfect linearity and continuity of time (despite its eternal return that confirms it, since a circle is more cruel and strict than a simple straight line and thus, through its everlasting repetition, confirms the basic clear and light einmal ist keinmal line of existence) did not allow Friedrich to think about this paradox that he would certainly have liked, and so the smile on his face was caused by a simpler and more easily guessed analogy, by the fact that both the wooden desk and the leaves of paper were made of the same material; only the age of this particular desk prevented the thought that the wood and the paper had been made from the same tree or maybe from two neighboring trees. Today Nietzsche was in a good and diligent frame of mind. He walked to the desk and began looking at and sorting the messy papers, attempting with a glance to read and decode a fragment of text written with his quick and hard-to-read handwriting, written when he was trying to keep up with a whole flood of his thoughts in those lucid moments when it seemed that every drop that spilled from the pot that is his head had to be absorbed by paper or it would be irretrievably lost. He succeeded in sorting a heap of individual leaves into some kind of regular mass and put it aside. Happily and contentedly he began to flip through the pages of his completed manuscripts. He touched the pages of Ecce Homo gently, with, it seemed, the pleasant feeling that his writings justified their own existence. He turned over the pages, reading only the subtitles, as if flipping through a newspaper. The self-conscious pathetical-vain pomposity of these subtitles elicited a happy smile. He whispered slowly the rhetorical questions that headed the chapters: Why I am so wise, Why I am so clever, Why I write such excellent books, Why I am fate. In those phrases there was perhaps a grain of self-irony, or at least a hint that might eventually let one detect self-irony, but still this was his opinion and this was the easiest way to express it. Someone somewhere speaking about self-praise quoted a thought of Lord Bacon—the wisest, brightest, and meanest of mankind—who pointed out that even for self-commendation the ancient Latin praise of slander is valuable: Semper aliquid haeret. Maybe Nietzsche remembered Bacon because he had noticed his name on the pages he’d flipped and subconsciously glanced at: We hardly know enough about Lord Bacon—the first realist in the highest sense of the word—to be sure of everything he did, everything he willed, and everything he experienced in himself. The other names written on the manuscript’s pages must have been noticed as well: Heine, Wagner, da Vinci, Bach, Ranke, Horace. Each name brought its own associations, the same way that smell and taste evoke their own recollections and stimulate memories. He liked to think that future poets and philosophers would consider him as significant as he considered a few of his own teachers. His time was not fond of him. He put Ecce Homo aside and took up the manuscript of The Antichrist, perhaps remembering one of the first sentences in that book, a sentence he had written while thinking about himself: Some men are born posthumously. In fact, resentment wafted from all his works due to the absence of tribute and admiration, resentment concealed by self-love and a pose of prior knowledge and expectation or almost prophetic  presentiments about thefate accorded to his writing by the times he lived in, by the fairly unenviable and rather subdued level of reception of his works. Yet, while still young, he had made noncontemporaneity his main goal. He was troubled most of all by the unreceptiveness of the times, but he always consoled himself with the firm belief—and on mornings like this one he believed it without a trace of suspicion—that his time would come, a time when one day his name would be associated with the memory of something tremendous. Already there were some sensible and prophetic souls who had not passed out from the thin mountain air of his writings. Recently he had mailed a short text about himself—an encoded life—at the request of the Danish professor Brandes. Perhaps that somewhat poetic curriculum vita had provoked him into writing Ecce Homo, a kind of autobiography. Brandes was not the only one who discerned his greatness. A small group of admirers scattered around the world, like some sensitive and tiny animals, apprehended the coming earthquake that would be caused by his thought, like rats they knew that the ship of contemporaneity should be abandoned, that weak and ornate yacht that has been trying for as long as possible to hide one unpleasant and uncorrectable fact—that it is sinking. He flipped through the pages and read the manuscripts till it became dark. Then he lit a lamp and sat quietly looking at the wall, probably thinking about his works in the swaying and shadowy, solemn and almost churchlike silence. Lately he could read and write under artificial light only with great difficulty. The letters were searching for the sun. He sat motionless for a long time; only his forehead would occasionally be covered with wrinkles like a sea covered with small waves stroked by a light wind. Sometimes his right hand would press his temples, covering his forehead with its span, like a kid measuring distance. When he glanced at the clock it was already nearly midnight. He lay down and, amazingly, again fell asleep quickly. His spirit sank into sleep at practically the same moment that his body sank into the bed. According to the Bible, King David always fell asleep this quickly.

 

1.2.1889

 

Nietzsche awoke at daybreak, amazed and happy. Again he had slept well and deeply. He was turning in bed, waking up. Lusciously, he rolled his tongue in satisfaction, like a dog. He was still in the thrall of yesterday’s excellent mood, that almost physically tangible height of self-consciousness and agitated satisfaction. Ideas, concepts, phrases, sentences—the totality of the mental architecture and rhetorical facade of his works stood under his view, and he was satisfied with the plasticity of that phenomenon, its picturesque appearance. Along with this vision, in the background, he saw a moving sequence of the events and situations of his life from the times that certain of his works were created. He recalled certain memories and relived them in the sweet-and-sour and distressingly painless way that occurs when a self from some past period splits from the present self and they feel only a slight identification with each other as if with some imaginary personality, a figment, a personality after all not so likeable, but which has some insignificant detail that allows for identification, let’s say a similarity of lips or clothing, for example. But apparently all these things he recalled so indifferently today had made his works such as they are, and so they seemed significant to him. Although his mood was closer to yesterday’s than to that of two days before, his behavior was, on the contrary, closer to that of two days ago than to yesterday’s. Nietzsche lay awake in bed till nearly noon, not due to some weakness this time but rather due to the satisfaction of spiritual abundance, due to the enjoyment of idleness that is (as he himself wrote before) what a true thinker desires the most. Still he did not intend to spend the whole day lying down. He was an ascetic in his intimate pleasures, even though in recent months he had occasionally written true praises of indulgence (actually, mostly about simple animal indulgence, indulgence in the things he himself liked). His youthful character, which to some extent was expressed in those events he had been recalling this morning, lingered more in the practical atavism of his habits than in the theoretical evolution of his writings and rhetorically formed thoughts. The similarity with yesterday’s mood also repeated itself today in the will to work. As he had yesterday, Nietzsche sat at his writing desk and read his own manuscripts. But as opposed to the previous day, his inner state did not have that pleasant uniformity. In the background it was as if some undetermined shadow was waxing, a shadow that covered the sun his soul so desired, a shadow that slowly grew as after high noon. He tried to chase away or forget that unpleasant feeling by walking in the room, trying through physical activity to bring a pleasant ingredient to the dull chemistry of the complicated mechanism of his consciousness. After a while he sat again and began flipping quickly and chaotically through his manuscripts, one after another, as if searching in every one of them for a formula that would sum up his complete opus and teaching. From the background of his brain, from some sphere of the huge terra incognita that was his internal kingdom, an obsessive refrain, a chorus of unpleasant suspicion, was relentlessly emerging to the surface of his spiritual sea, and it was slowly but surely coming to occupy the front line of his mood, triumphing over yesterday’s happy self-satisfaction. Most likely, the siren’s song of this suspicion expressed skepticism toward the fruit of his efforts. It was something that must have been hard on him, although suspicion is in fact something human, truly human. It must have seemed to Nietzsche that the various casual thoughts and associations he had had over the previous two days had carried a hint as to what was now happening, like when a sailor understands the meaning of what had seemed to be an innocent cloud just before a storm breaks. Then he took up the manuscript of The Will to Power, a work he thought that by its name alone expressed the concrete quintessential originality and novelty of his teaching. This work, too, had been created last year. His spirit lives in all the other works from that period. What is good?—Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.—This nearly catechistical phrase, in question and answer form, is at the beginning of The Antichrist. But the unpleasant feeling was spreading organically through his body. Nietzsche again stood up and began walking about the room. He had no desire to go out, as if the unpleasant feeling manifested itself also in some kind of agoraphobia. Suddenly he stopped by the bedside night table, a night table with books, as if seeing it for the first time. He looked at the hardbound works of his teachers and educators. As if hypnotized, he picked up The World as Will and Representation. Then perhaps he remembered Dostoyevsky, the only psychologist from whom he learned anything, a psychologist who belongs to the most beautiful happy moments of his life. In one Dostoyevsky novel, a German (apropos—Dostoyevsky, that deep man, was right ten times over to devalue trivial Germans) looks for answers to his dilemmas by opening the Bible at random and taking the first sentence he sees as a prophecy, as a kind of Pythian perfect advice to be followed. At random Friedrich opened the Bible of his youth: The World as Will and Representation. The heavy tome opened to the beginning of the fifty-fourth chapter. Nietzsche’s glance fell on the next-to-last sentence of the second paragraph: Since the will always wants life, exactly because life is nothing else but a manifestation of that will in representation, it is completely unimportant, it is just a pleonasm, if instead of saying simply will we say will to live. Nietzsche read this sentence aloud several times, and then closed and put aside the book. He sat on the bed and stared at the wall. He must have been remembering two opposite pages of his experience that stood for the two poles of his youth: his education of a philologist and his enthusiasm for Schopenhauer. Now these two poles melted together in some kind of metaphysical disappointment. Perhaps it seemed to him that his whole life was just a pleonasm. Because what is the will for power other than the most ordinary will to live or simply just will, the blind will of Schopenhauer. He had dedicated his life to a phantom. And perhaps he remembered his pure youthful love for Schopenhauer, a love he had betrayed so nastily so many times in last year’s writings, like a divorced husband slandering the former wife whom he still loves above all. He was disgusted by this yearning for his youth, just as he was disgusted by all vulgar commonplaces, but he was also yearning for sincerity, for a source, for health, strength, vigor, enthusiasm. Outside it was getting darker, as it was in his soul. Nietzsche probably sat in the dark till after midnight.

 

1.3.1889

 

Opening his eyes this morning, Nietzsche did not know if he had awakened. In fact, he was not sure if he slept at all last night. He had spent the whole night in some giddy delirium, a surrogate of sleep. It was overcast outside. The first clouds of the new year were floating above Turin. Immediately after opening his eyes, which could be called awakening only by inertia, Nietzsche got dressed and went out. He had not left the house for a full two days. He went out into the fresh air driven perhaps by  some ancient instinct, some almost archetypical hope that relief would come from fresh air in open spaces. It was still early and the streets were deserted. The first sign of life he saw was a carriage on the corner. He heard a whistle, but not a whistle made by the wind. As Friedrich approached the corner with the carriage, the whistle became mixed with the sound of his footsteps and the coachman’s cruel cursing. The incisive scream of a whip nearly covered the horse’s painful groan. At the street corner, the laughing coachman was beating the horse with a thick leather whip, beating it cruelly, bloodily, and for no reason. With his eyes frothing, the coachman watched a neat and refined gentleman approach him. He began hitting the horse even harder, more briskly and more frequently. The thick bristly mustache of the slowly approaching gentleman was visibly trembling. The coachman thought that Nietzsche was laughing approvingly. But in fact Nietzsche was looking into the horse’s sad eyes, into the animal’s terribly sad eyes. His already slow steps became shaky and insecure as a drunkard’s. With his last remaining strength he came up to the horse and embraced it firmly, running his hands through its mane like a man playing with the hair of his beloved. His shoulders were heaving in an almost fatal spasm. The whip in coachman’s hand froze and became mute. Perhaps for a moment the coachman thought that he was dreaming. The gentlemanly pedestrian embraced the horse and shed tears. For the first time since his childhood Friedrich Nietzsche was crying.

 

 

Muharem Bazdulj, The Second Book, Northwestern University Press, 2005. Originally published in Bosnian in 2000 under the title Druga knjiga. Translated from the Bosnian by Oleg Andrić and Andrew Wachtel.

 

 

the eerieness of alex rose: “slip on your leather gloves… that make you look like a strangler…”

Short fiction from Alex Rose via the inspired (but faintly sinister) Hotel St. George Press Web site.  When Ursula K. Le Guin famously described Philip K. Dick as “entertaining us about reality and madness, time and death, sin and salvation… our own homegrown Borges,” she could just as well have been speaking about Alex Rose. 


“Something about the gesture calls to mind a chapter of last night’s dream.  You were lost in a hotel, frantically looking for your room.  When you finally located it, you were shocked to find it occupied by a another man with your name; a man who had surreptitiously slid in to your space, like "castling" in chess, and was in fact withdrawing from your account, drinking your wine and groping your wife. 

Only now, of course, does it occur to you that the plot of your dream was itself a pale imitation of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Double, a gloomy book you’d recently uploaded to the archive.  This seems to confirm a discouraging truth: you are not even original in your dreams.”


THE PLAGIARIST

 I have often noticed that after I had bestowed the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it…[becoming] more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist.

—Nabokov


It’s a rare thing—your leaving theoffice after sundown—and slightly disorienting, not unlike waking from a deep sleep, or stepping into the daylight after a matinee.

You’re glad to be out of there, away from your computer, the oppressive fluorescents, the endless queue of books, each lobbying for your attention.  Recasting the world’s literature onto an electronic database is hardly the enlightening, Zen-like task people presume it to be.  It’s neither monotonous enough to be meditative, nor involved enough to be stimulating. 

Outside, a brisk evening gale burns the cheeks.  You slip on your leather gloves, the ones that make you look like a strangler, and head south towards the subway.

In the icy, ash-scented air, the city appears lapidary, all gauzy and glazed, like a comic book metropolis.  Frozen condensation weeps down the sides of buildings in swooping sags.  A frail woman with hair like corn silk pumps open her umbrella; you’d thought for a second she was uncorking a bottle.

Something about the gesture calls to mind a chapter of last night’s dream.  You were lost in a hotel, frantically looking for your room.  When you finally located it, you were shocked to find it occupied by a another man with your name; a man who had surreptitiously slid in to your space, like "castling" in chess, and was in fact withdrawing from your account, drinking your wine and groping your wife. 

Only now, of course, does it occur to you that the plot of your dream was itself a pale imitation of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Double, a gloomy book you’d recently uploaded to the archive.  This seems to confirm a discouraging truth: you are not even original in your dreams.

A blade of light swishes over your face, a cab lumbering past. 

The foggy November sheen lends a brushed chrome luster to the darkening cobalt sky.  Streaks of water slide down hotel awnings to drip from their fringed tassels.

Down below, the air is thick with subterranean fumes: starchy, alkaline.  You clank through the turnstile and climb aboard the crowded subway seconds before it departs. Clods of slushy snow are flecked across the ridged tin floor.  A seat is vacated as a jowly businessman collects his belongings and galumphs toward the door, wheezing.  You slip into his place, fold your damp coat over your lap.

PHOSPHENE

I can make a bong out of anything, says Neil.

I believe him.

We go to Store 24 and buy everything he says we need.  A tall black thermos.  A sturdy bendy straw.  A little dish.  Some innocuous office supplies of this and that kind.  Tape.

Don’t forget the food, he says.  I get a large bag of Doritos and a bottle of A&W Cream Soda and some of those little mini-muffins that can be swallowed whole.

Give me a half-an-hour, he says.

We go home to construct the bong.  The physics are not immediately apparent to me; what water has to do with the inhalation of pot smoke.  But, as I say, I trust him.

Neil and I met last summer at a thing.  He wore plaid flannel and frameless circular glasses and gigantic corduroy pants.  His look was rumpled and grungy, every article meticulously selected from thrift shops. I admired him for his lanky grace and his outcast charm.  Girls made out with him at parties.  He had an Asian fetish, if a preference for olive skin and black hair can be called a fetish.  He listened to Primus and tried, futilely, as many did, to play the bass like Les Claypool.

It is done, he says.

We throw the clunky black obelisk into my knapsack.  He takes the food and the small, tightly packed plastic dime-bag in his.  Bong water and dime bag are the vocab words for the week.

It is nighttime already.  We head down to the end of the block.  It rained last night and forsythia is in the air.  Along the small side street is a cement staircase leading to the basement of the Evangelical church, where they supposedly hold art classes.  The bottom of the staircase is a cube of blackness.  This was the designated location.  A bluish lamp from the churchtop throws a slash of dim light in the dark chamber, measuring a storey underground.

We descend.

The space—a peripheral glance on my walks home from school—is now charged with the illicit badboy shiver of clandestinity.  I am nervous, as if I’d taken a date here.  Neil carefully sets up the thermos, eyes wide in the dark.  Pot, he says to me, like scalpel. I hand him the tiny bag and he unwraps it.  It smells like mulch or a spice cabinet.  Something they’d make incense out of.

 

Read an interview with Alex Rose here.

camilo jose céla on the novel: “to rejuvenate themes grown old and to revivify the eternal myths”

The Novel as Concept

 

by Camilo Jose Céla

I

On occasion, I have compared the process of making a novel with the process of having a child. The concept is not really original and may even be pedestrian, vulgar, and commonplace. I don’t say it isn’t. Still, to have a child, just as to have a novel, to write it, a set of circumstances must occur, for without them neither child nor novel can be produced. Savants, those who pass their idle hours combining substances in retorts or staring through a microscope or pouring over blurred palimpsests, have children in the same way as foremen on cattle ranches, the same as stevedores or bus drivers. If anyone proposed to make an analysis of a child and determine its desirable parts for combination in a laboratory, who knows what would result? Perhaps stock for soup, or shoe polish, or even dynamite, but as for a child, not likely …


It’s the same with the novel. If a Spaniard, a German, a Russian can put together the necessary ingredients, count on the required circumstances which no one can enumerate, and put their minds to the task, they can produce novels, perhaps magnificent novels. If they were to imitate the savants, they would be lost; the laboratory technician may not engender a viable child, but he can turn out utilitarian objects; novelists-a-la-savant can only produce aberrations.


The life of a child, however short it lasts, completes a cycle: the child is born, grows, dies. In addition, it cries, laughs, sucks a teat, wets itself …


In a letter, a friend tells me: "A novel is the description of a complete circle, an enclosed horizon of life, with no void spaces, just as there are none around us." This friend is quite right: the cycle may be closed—by the death of the child or the end of the novel—but it cannot be interrupted.


To speak of the novel is like speaking of the sea. The novel simply needs to be written. Dogmatic pronouncements are useless.


There is no point in trying to fit it into a Procrustean bed. And no one should forget its inexhaustible sources—of action, of aesthetic beauty, of sustained interest—sources with names like Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal. Divagations and lucubrations are of little value here.


Proust wrote: "Une oeuvre ou il y a des theories est comme un ob jet sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix." Proust knew whereof he spoke: it would be frightful to give birth to a child who, instead of causing a fuss and setting up a din, as natural law requires, stood up in his cradle and pontificated: "O parents and brothers: the economic theory of free competition …" Such a child would deserve capital punishment.


A novel has no business expressly defending anything, absolutely anything at all. It will inevitably be seen that it plays some part in life, but those novels which are known to be, before they are opened, intent on defending this or attacking that, are devoid of any importance whatsoever.


The nursery of proletarian novelists which the Communist Party nurtured with a view toward overawing the Western world came to a sterile end, a blasted crop even though the Russians are exceptionally gifted for developing the genre. The great writers of the nineteenth century, who developed and came to fruition under the twin scourges of persecution and imprisonment, a very poor environment indeed for the production of luxury goods like the novel, were never bettered or even equaled by the Soviet hacks whose names are already forgotten—not even by Gorky, the best of the lot.


The concept of the novel must come from within, like the taste of a pear or the odor of a flower or of the sea. It cannot be severed, separated, or cast aside like an orange peel or a banana skin, for therein lies the danger: that the whole will be thrown away with the parings.


It is difficult indeed to conceal the scaffolding of a book from its reader. But it is a necessity. In the novels of Pio Baroja, if we take as an example the most noteworthy and most universal of modern Spanish novelists, we never stumble on the joints or the scaffolding, however much we turn the work about, hold it up to the light, or sniff around in general. For the body of Don Pio’s work is like a seamless tunic, without stitching. It is spawned—just as a boy-child or a girl-child is born—altogether and once and for all.


In contrast, let us mention Valle-Inclan, Don Ramon with his goat’s beard. His plots are more obvious than protruding ribs. What about this plank sticking out here? That board is Barbey, the French writer. And this other protrusion? That belongs to Casanova, the gentleman-writer. And so on … The fact that Don Ramon manages to emerge triumphant simply implies genius, something a bit apart from the point we are making.


The novel requires a gut truth, a whole-bodied verity, one which has been digested and redigested by the author. The novelist by rights should have four stomachs, like oxen. Thus equipped, he would constantly be ruminating his gut truth, and his book would always be well born.


Balancing acts are not permissible in the making of a novel, because if the author ever loses his balance, he falls into the abyss and breaks his neck. The great lacuna in the history of the Spanish novel, which stretches from the time of the writers of the Generation of ’98 until … until when, O Lord? … is filled with castaways who tried balancing acts.

II


A starving man is more sound in his reasons than a hundred men of letters.


It would be convenient to know, so as not to lose ourselves in a labyrinth whose secret key we do not possess, something about the function of literature. It would also not be amiss to find a way of weighing the worth of literary ingredients, of determining the soundness of the building materials with which we are working. While we are about it, why not plumb, within reasonable limits, the rarefied nature of the writing profession itself? We might then be in a position to guess whether the art of the novel is some kind of scientific paradox or if it is instead a manifestation of wondrous chance—of a pure, if truncated, kind of stern destiny.


To Carlyle’s way of thinking, writing is the greatest miracle of man’s imagining—perhaps simply a miraculous curse. For Goethe, it seems a laborious way of relaxing, perhaps a form of relaxation which will let us die wearing the frightful grimace of a person succumbing to overwork.


A writer’s singular office may be compared to a disappointing game of blindman’s buff: the principal actor dances in desperation before a chorus of invisible and phantasmagoric spectators. "To write is to arouse interest, but the interest we manage to arouse may be no more than a tiny bell tinkling in a great desert waste, and it may make us forget the blindfold around our eyes and prevent us from properly assessing the materials with which we will have to work: that is, the prose which will give only a poor idea of things, and the poetry which will yield only an inexact notion." Thus spoke that tormented and blindfolded Spaniard, Angel Ganivet, who committed suicide in the Dwina River.


And to write novels, to "novelate"? To novelate is to die step by step on a dusty road leading nowhere. And to go down smiling, the better to please the world’s lurid tastes, the better to endure its mockery, all the while being beaten while fending off the Tyrians, who play with a stacked deck because they are not allowed to lose, and taking additional blows from the Trojans, who jump into the ring bearing arms forbidden by all codes of honor because, according to the laws promulgated by themselves, their side must always win.


To write novels is to uproot oneself, to venture forth carrying one’s roots in the air above one’s head, and to let oneself be cut down by the first fool one encounters without a show of resistance and in the full knowledge of one’s own ignominy.


Today it is not enough to possess a purely artistic understanding of the hara-kiri involved in novelating. A genius may raise his particular science to the heights of art, but the artist lacking genius may be merely a fraud, a dealer in contraband. It’s for the likes of the latter that literary prize contests are organized: fraudulent novelists write novels with a thesis—proletarian novels, inspirational novels, redemptive novels, sex novels—and the host of nonsense books that are invented for the stultification of man, who was once called, in happier times, the measure of all things.


The novelist does not know where he is going. The same is true of the north needle on a compass. The novelist allots himself a certain amount of terrain, applies the technology he has mastered, and awaits to see what he produces: if it’s a boy he’ll know by its lap, likewise if it’s a girl; if it’s bearded he can call out San Anton, if not, he can speak of an Immaculate Conception.


Science, like life or death, does not allow subterfuge. Art, like love, does. Thus, for the latter, fraud is a distinct possibility. The point is to avoid, with a measure of precision, concepts as such, and also to avoid confusing love with alterations in the nervous system. No novelist would ever think "to tell a book by its cover," and neither would he confuse an underground tuber with its leaves, for he must begin by knowing what leaves are and what a tuber is. George Santayana affirmed that the function of literature is to convert events into ideas. This conversion or transformation, be it understood, cannot be attained by exclusively artistic means, or by purely intuitive, nondeliberated means, which would amount to the same. The present crisis in literature is due to the inability of the novelist to dominate modern technical means. Beyond Faulkner’s interior monologue, for example, which can be carried on through talent alone, there rises, like a giant mountain, the terra incognita of strict objectivity. Objectivity in itself is a difficult bone to gnaw, especially with the teeth provided by art. Nevertheless, if the novelistic genre is not to atrophy, science must sooner or later sink its teeth into the matter.


Today’s novelist should surely give up his affair with the likes of Madame Bovary and turn his attention to a Lazarillo, the archetypal picaro of the picaresque. The novel should no longer concern itself with the amusements of featherbrained housewives, maudlin dreamers who whore around, in body or soul, at the far corners of provinces. Such things as hunger and bad faith are still prevalent, as is the wretchedness of the servant with a hundred masters.

To rejuvenate themes grown old and to revivify the eternal myths: that is the business of the contemporary novelist, assuming he does not want to go into cold storage, where, as with multicolored cats at night, all things are a monotone.


If it’s all a matter of killing time—a role assigned literature by all its detractors and a goodly number of those who cultivate it—everything we have said is superfluous. Still, something greater may be involved, though it have so many names we dare not name it with any one name.


The art of novelating is clearly, more clearly each day, seen to be an affair of two or three world novelists who work with energy and faith above and beyond the orbit of art. In physics, the same was true with Planck, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and even true before them.


Ortega’s figure of a divine somnambulist no longer serves. That time is done. In the field of the novel, the seer exchanges his walnut wand for a radar installation.


All this does notmean the death of the genre. It may represent its birth. In Galdos’s time the novel was still in its intrauterine stage.

 
 

—Translated by Anthony Kerrigan. First Published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, issue 4.3 (Fall 1984).

 

CAMILO JOSE CÉLA, born in Spain, has published over fifty books of fiction, criticism, and travel writing. His novels include The Family of Pascual Duarte, Hive, San Camilo, and 1936. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989.